The history of commemorative coins and medals stretches back to the imperial coins of Ancient Rome. In this next series of blog posts, I will explore the medals and coins made by Cyrus E. Dallin. Who were the people are behind the names? What were the purposes of these medals/coins and my interpretations of what they mean from an art historical perspective. Because this is a blog and not a dissertation, I will try to keep the tone as light as I can. If you are interested in more information, please feel free to contact me.
It wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance that the custom of presenting metallic objets’d’art to military commanders who had served the Republic well was instituted. Thus commemorative medals of military heroes were born.
“Homage to Marshall Foch” was a collaborative effort between two Massachusetts Normal Art School (MNAS) colleagues, professors, and artists: Cyrus E. Dallin and Raymond A. Porter. Porter designed the front of the medal depicting a portrait relief of Marshall Ferdinand Foch in profile view in his military uniform and Dallin designed the reverse side that was an allegorical representation of the Allied forces of France and America in World War I. This was but one of several collaborations between the two colleagues. Porter and Dallin also collaborated on the MNAS Honor Medal to be discussed in a later post.
The design of Porter’s profile relief portrait of Marshall Ferdinand Foch hearkens back to the Italian Renaissance and Pisanello who popularized it throughout Italy, however, it was the imperial coins featuring the faces of Roman emperors where the tradition began. Imperial Roman coins regularly featured the heads of emperors, one of the first being Julius Caesar. The purpose was to disseminate the image of the emperor around the Roman Empire. Prior to this, only gods and goddesses had the honor of depiction on coins.
By the time of the Renaissance. renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman art drove artists such as Pisanello to recreate the profile portraiture so common in Roman imperial coins into medals and paintings that “appropriated the prestige of both ancient and modern emperors…[and] afforded an almost tangible manifestation of their own power, grace and élan.” To be memorialized in metal rendered the subject immortal, a god for eternity.
Dallin’s contribution to this commemorative medal was of a more allegorical nature. The reverse side shows two female figures in classical dress holding a laurel wreath between them with the letters FOCH embossed in the center. Centered above the figures are the words “IN GRATEFUL SALUTATION,” below, the date “Nov. 14, 1921” is embossed. To the right under the feet of the figure on the right is Dallin’s signature “CE Dallin.”
At first glance, it would seem to be an odd choice to have two women on a coin for an esteemed military figure, however, if one takes the time to unlock the pictures, a story emerges.
The two women garbed in classical dress fill the space while mirroring each other’s poses. Both hold the laurel wreath, a classic symbol of victory, alluding to the alliance of France and the United States. The symbolism of the laurel wreath dates back to Ancient Greece where the victors of the Olympic Games were awarded laurel wreaths to wear on their heads like crowns. The name FOCH is embossed in the center of the wreath symbolizing his victory.
There is an interesting juxtaposition of the clothing of the figures. The figure on the left, dressed in a classic French peasant hat and more Grecian classical dress with crossbands and peplos holds a shield with the thirteen stripes of the American flag. This suggests that the alliance between France and the United States is so strong that one will carry the national flag of the other on to victory.
The figure on the right is a complex mystery and where Dallin truly shines in his intelligence and artistic creativity. She has one breast bared in a nod to the image of victory in Eugene Delacroix’ painting “Liberty Leading the People” (1830). This was and continues to be a famous French painting and all that saw it would recognize Dallin’s attribution to Delacroix.
The figure’s hair, however, is braided like the aboriginal people of America. Dallin felt that the Native Americans deserved to be led to liberty and although not relevant to his World War I allegory, gives an interesting message to his own cause of aiding the Native Americans. In addition, the shield that the right figure is holding is not the flag of the United States, but the flag of Massachusetts where this award was given. Could it also be a symbol of the Native American tribes going into battle and emerging victorious over the U.S. at last? Perhaps aligning themselves with France? They did visit France with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Perhaps they received better treatment? Perhaps they perceived that they did?
Foch did visit Boston and was allegedly presented with his medal on 14 November 1921. Although the Boston papers covered the coming of the event, the day of it, they were strangely quiet. However, there was a small mention in another newspaper outside of Massachusetts that he was visiting Boston on that day.
I hope that this has presented Dallin in a new light and if nothing else, given you a bit of insight into the creation of commemorative medals and coins. Every time I look, I see something else. Perhaps you will too. Visit the museum if you have a chance and see the medal up close. It is a lovely work of art.
 vonReumont, Alfred. Lorenzo De’Medici: The Magnificent, Volume 2, p. 169.
 Rubin, Patricia Lee. The Renaissance portrait: from Donatello to Bellini. p 31.
 See Note 2
 Impelluso, Lucia; Sartarelli, Stephen, translation. Nature and Its Symbols. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (2004), p. 38.